If you ask me: Former Sunday Express editor Brian Hitchen

Former editor of the Daily Star and Sunday Express Brian Hitchen was also a founding member of the Press Complaints Commission. He reflects on the hacking scandal and journalism today

I feel sorry for journalists today. They sit at their desks like battery hens, sipping Evian water and eating half-frozen sandwiches from the vending machine. Many are the product of half-baked courses of journalism and have no news sense and the same goes for their news editors.

British newspapers fed the monster and now most newspapers live off the droppings of this monster. Everything is about celebrities, when who cares? Some newspapers don’t. I am delighted every morning when I read the ‘i’ – it is superb. Everything you want to read is in there and you see so many of the more intelligent young people reading it.

I fear for the future of newspapers because so many are mediocre. The only one with the courage to go for the jugular about the PM is the Daily Mail. Cameron is a prat. This is a very strange country led by a weak PM. Dacre is lambasting this man for telling people how to run their countries instead of running this one.

Journalism has changed enormously. I have been in it for 46 years. I started off as a copy boy. I was privileged to be with people who were giants, they are not there anymore. Freddie Forsyth and Janet Street Porter are still doing it regularly in the press, but the rest of the columnists use recycled material.

David Cameron: Reuters

It’s a question of rebreeding the nose for news. A lot of journalists haven’t a clue what a good story is. The Daily Telegraph used to be the news editor’s bible: we would look for the one line that would cause a splash the next day. Now it isn’t there and I am not even sure the news editors read newspapers anymore. We need experienced older journalists brought in. A lot of journalists don’t work hard any more.

You do not run newspapers by committee – being an editor is the best job in the world, but also the loneliest. When the chips are down, the decision is yours. Lawyers don’t tell you what to put in the paper, the final say is with the editor. It is like being the captain of an aircraft carrier. The fault lies with you.

I think the secret of being a successful tabloid editor is knowing your readers – their hopes and dreams, their aspirations, you have to live in their shoes. The problem with the Government is that these people have never had to worry about paying a gas bill. So many readers are on the breadline and you have to be absolutely in tune and feel what your readers are like. We have to shout for them because nobody is shouting for the little man. The Mirror is disgraceful, the Express does as best it can on a limited budget, but Dacre stands out way ahead of the rest. He knows instinctively what his readers want. It doesn’t matter what his executives say, if he thinks, ‘It would interest me or my family’, it will go in.

I am appalled, angry and disgusted by the hacking scandal and it is another example of poor journalism today. But there are also people who I don’t believe are guilty. The people who did it, who I am sure prompted by ambition, greed and lack of experience and they have jeopardised the freedom of the press. Their crass stupidity has handed the keys to those wanting to shackle the press. I think Cameron is guilty of another lack of judgement by launching the Leveson Inquiry while a criminal investigation is going on.

There are so many things wrong with phone-hacking. We never ever did that. The nearest we came to that was to buy a reverse directory from a less-than-honest postman. We got what we wanted because we worked hard, we banged on doors and we had contacts. If the News of the World had got anything worth having, it might have been in the public interest. It sure as hell wouldn’t have happened on my watch as an editor.

Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. Pic: Reuters

I don’t think the PCC should be scrapped entirely. What those cowboys at the News of the World did is well covered by criminal law and therefore you don’t need any more legislation. I wouldn’t throw out the whole system, and I would keep the PCC secretariat – they do a terrific job.

The most memorable story I was involved in was tracking down Ronnie Biggs. The story was brought in by Colin Mackenzie and I was the puppet master who ran the whole thing. Only about four of us knew what was going on. It was me who bought the ticket for Scotland Yard’s Jack Slipper and he didn’t know where he was going until I gave him the ticket to Rio. The picture of Elvis [dead] that I got for the Enquirer made circulation go up to 6.5m that week and it was the biggest rise in circulation of any publication anywhere. But I am most proud of saving the Daily Star from closure. I turned it back into a newspaper from a tits and bum rag. To any aspiring journalist, I would say forget luck, you make your own luck – it’s called hard work. One thing beats everything else and that is persistence – just keep banging on that door and one of them will open. l

 

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